Sink Or Swim

Marshall Erb weighs in on the future of pool design and resort-style living in our big backyards.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

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Architect Michael Haverland’s celebrated glass house in East Hampton is a lovely example of how a pool can connect different parts of the home. (Photo: Dwell)

While we’d all like to put COVID in our rearview mirror, there’s no denying the lingering effect it’s having on the way we live and how we define good design. And now, with spring rapidly approaching and people bracing for possible new variants, our outdoor spaces are getting the most attention.

“With summer being just a few months away, our clients are focused on outdoor entertaining—maximizing and optimizing their outdoor footprint for hosting friends, family fun and wellness options at home,” says Marshall Erb, founder and lead designer of Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “The desire to keep things close to home when it comes to gathering safely—that’s not going away anytime soon.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that Erb is busy beautifying backyards from Winnetka to Waialea Bay in Hawaii. “I predict that the ‘pod mentality’ will be defining how we design our outdoor spaces for years to come. Our clients want impressive, full outdoor kitchens, standalone alfresco dining spaces, covered lounges with a smart TV and a bar, outdoor fireplaces and fire pits, and lovely landscaping and hardscaping to tie it all together.”

And despite our temperate climate here in the Midwest, where we may only get four months of summer (if we’re lucky), Erb is seeing a major uptick in requests for updated, enlarged and elaborate pools. “Our Midwest clients are looking to squeeze every sun-kissed second out of this summer,” says Erb. “But what I find particularly interesting is the increased desire that I’m seeing for indoor pools and spas, too. Indoor pools are perfect for our climate—and after seeing Gwyneth Paltrow’s glam indoor spa in Architectural Digest, everybody wants one. For an urban Chicago home that we’re currently working on, we’re installing a 70-foot-long, subterranean pool with skylights that open up from the ground into the double lot’s side garden. The skylights are flush with the garden. You can literally walk across them when they’re closed. And when they’re open, the pool is exposed to the outdoors and the fresh air. It’s insane! The indoor space will have hotel-style spa features as well, including a sauna and a cold plunge bath.”

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Cal-a-Vie is an award-winning French-country-inspired fitness and health spa in SoCal, and a source of inspiration for Erb’s clients who want resort-style living at home. (Photo: Cal-a-Vie Health Spa for Elle Decor)

When it comes to outdoor pools in 2022, maximalist design is definitely having a moment. “We’re getting requests for radical fire elements, sophisticated lighting features and, yes, flowing water features like fountains and waterfalls,” says Erb. “If done tastefully, the sound is very soothing.” For a house in Maui, the second largest Hawaiian island, Marshall Erb Design is pulling out all the stops for the outdoor domain. “The main living room is this big square that projects out into a covered lanai. For the pool, we dreamed up a shape that wraps around the house, so that you can swim from the bedrooms to the living room and vice versa. From there, we really leveled up the nighttime features, including peppering in massive fire bowls that burn at night. They function like tiki torches, but they are low and wide—30 inches in diameter to be exact.”

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The pool of Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady’s former Los Angeles home flaunts a beautiful overwater sundeck. (Photo: Erhard Pfeiffer for Galerie)

Speaking of pool placement, Erb says that where the pool is situated is a hot topic, too. “Because people are wanting all of these additional features—outdoor kitchens, lounges, etc.—we’re seeing that the pools are moving farther and farther away from the house,” says Erb. “In terms of layout, I’m really liking this trend because it allows for zones that can be designated for different outdoor activities—be it relaxing, fitness or entertaining—with breathing room in between, instead of having one centralized hub that’s butted up to the house.” And according to Erb, because of this push, the pool house is back in vogue. “Whereas in the past the pool house was pretty much just for seasonal use—summer shade, storage, a place to hang towels, and maybe a shower and a bathroom—today’s pool houses are much more multifunctional, and have become a bonus area for entertaining. The pool cabana has morphed into a year-round structure—a four seasons, auxiliary living unit for guests that can also be repurposed as a detached mother-in-law suite. Long gone are the days of putting a few chaise lounges around the pool and calling it a day.”

As for the pools themselves, Erb is noticing that a lot of his clients are nixing the deep end. “There’s been an increased interest in the sunken sundeck, a feature you often find at high-end hotels,” says Erb. “We are doing a lot of remodeling of pools and pool additions to incorporate a shallow zone where you can sunbathe above the water, and oftentimes omitting the deep end altogether for more waist-height water that supports wellness activities like volleyball or laps. Honestly, once they killed the diving board, that killed the deep end. Now it’s all about resort-style living in your big backyard.”